Iain Henderson’s charge-down of Mathieu Jalibert’s clearance kick bouncing straight into the hands of Gabin Villière in the first minute of Ireland’s clash with France today was a microcosm of how the game went for the home team: incredible effort on their part, but fortune not favouring them. In hindsight, it was an achievement that they were competitive with France at all considering the amount of first-choice players they were missing, but this still feels like one that got away from them.
Being heroic in defeat is something to be proud of, but consecutive losses drain the spirit out of teams, and Ireland can count their blessings that they have Italy up next, because if they had to face Scotland or England in two weeks’ time instead, you would wonder if they could work up the confidence to go out and beat either of them given the form both of those sides are in.
That being said, Ireland must ensure that they focus on the positives that can be gleaned from their loss to France today (and there are plenty of them), while also doing everything they can to recognise their shortcomings. Too much of the former, and they could become overly downbeat which doesn’t benefit anyone, but too much of the latter, and they will keeping making the same mistakes, which they have done two weeks in a row now, something that will no doubt be at the forefront of Andy Farrell’s mind.
Ireland had an encouraging start to this game, with the greasy conditions stymying France’s handling. This, coupled with Fabien Galthié selecting the 5’9” Brice Dulin at 15 meant that aerial bombardment was the cornerstone of Ireland’s game plan, and they imposed themselves on France territorial in the first quarter by ruthlessly targeting the La Rochelle full-back under the high ball:
When France did manage to claim these kicks successfully, their kick-returns allowed Ireland to exert pressure on the throw of Julian Marchand, and Tadhg Beirne and co. once again spoiled the French lineout on more than one occasion:
This gave Ireland long periods of possession in the French half, and they began to rumble through the phases, with pulverising carries from CJ Stander and the rest of Irish pack and scything runs from the likes of Garry Ringrose yielding big gains, with Billy Burns pulling the strings at 10, varying Ireland’s attack expertly:
For all their promise, Ireland couldn’t cross the whitewash, and a cheap try concession to Charles Ollivon saw them go into the half-time break 10-3 down, but a lot of motivation could be taken from their performance in the first 40 minutes.
Turning Of The Tables
After failing to convert pressure into points in the first half, Ireland needed to wrestle back control of the game to overturn their 7-point deficit, but three head clashes in the space of the first two minutes of the half contributed to them losing fluency completely, and they made mistake after mistake, gifting possession back to France, who were looking more incisive in attack by the second:
Handling errors were compounded by backfield mix-ups, with Ireland becoming unsettled in this area when France kicked long in the second quarter:
The combination of knock-ons and players getting their wires crossed under the high ball prevented Ireland from getting a foothold in French territory after half-time, and when Damian Penaud went over in the corner, you got that sinking feeling that France could run in a few more tries.
However, an extremely fortuitous try for Rónan Kelleher handed Ireland a lifeline, and they battled to get back to within two points of France, but in the stretches of possession that they had to generate another score, their attack was predictable, with impotent ball-carrying and lateral wide movements not making any inroads in the French defensive line:
This was the most disappointing aspect of the game for Ireland from a long-term progress perspective. After improving their ability to utilise their new attacking shape throughout the Autumn Nations Cup, the Wales match, and the first half of this fixture, they reverted to type, alternating between carrying one-out and flinging the ball wide, a style of attack that wouldn’t trouble the majority of defences at Test level, never mind one coached by Shaun Edwards.
Similar to their loss to Wales, Ireland can take huge heart from their efforts and how close the result was, but there is guaranteed to be exasperation at the chances they squandered, and there’s the distinct possibility that the scoreline could have been worse if not for Kelleher’s opportunistic try. They clawed their way back into the game after the remarkable score from the substitute hooker, but prior to it, their heads were starting to drop, and the second half looked like it was going to be a long one.
In a parallel universe, Ireland would be two from two, but as it stands, they are winless in this Championship, and it’s hard to know what course the Irish management take from here. Do they pick as many front-line players as are available for the Italy game and attempt a strong finish to the tournament in the hope of having three victories by the end of it? Or write it off completely and use their remaining matches as a squad-building exercise?
There will probably be a mix of both, with squad rotation likely against an Azzurri side that are shipping bad losses, before a rounding up of the troops for the Scotland and England fixtures. It is crucial that game time is afforded to the likes of Ryan Baird, Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey and Harry Byrne because despite getting good bench impact from Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Will Connors and Ross Byrne, Ireland could do with more options to choose from, particularly if their current injury rate continues.
Personnel aside, there have been a number of heartening elements to Ireland’s performances (such as varied, multi-layered attack, excellent lineout poaching, effective competition at the breakdown and smart territorial play) but frustratingly so, not all at the same time. If they can manufacture a strong display against Italy with an impressive winning margin, hopefully that could be a springboard for them to piece together an 80-minute performance against the better teams in this Championship.